Beyond Academia

Q&A: Working History

Beth English is the host and producer of Working History, the podcast of the Southern Labor Studies Association. She is the director of the Liechtenstein Institute’s Project on Gender in the Global Community. She is a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, and is also an instructor with Princeton University’s Prison Teaching Initiative. She received her Ph.D. from the College of William and Mary, where she was a Glucksman Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor, and has taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. English’s research and teaching focus primarily on gender, historical and contemporary labor and working class issues, global economy, and the U.S. and Global Souths.

Q. Tell us a little about your background

I’m a historian who studies labor in the U.S. South, by way of northwest Pennsylvania. When I was young, the industrial economy in my corner of the world—like much of what came to be called the Rustbelt—began to decline. By the time I was in high school my town’s local steel mill shuttered, and it had a profound ripple effect on the community’s well-being. My family had deep roots in this industrial economy—one of my grandpas worked in a paper mill, the other opened a car repair shop and service station after working in the auto factories of Detroit in the 1920s, which my dad eventually took over. The town really never regained its economic footing.

This profoundly informed my interest in the histories of individual working people, particularly as they grapple with broad economic changes, and the dynamics of deindustrialization and the impacts of community disinvestment. In my first book, A Common Thread, I delved into an early history of deindustrialization, focusing on the textile industry, and following one mill from New England southward to Alabama in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and ultimately to Mexico in the 1960s, asking, “what can we learn from this process to inform current policy debates?”

Q: Where did the idea for Working History come from?

Working History was really the product of a brainstorming session at an annual membership meeting of the Southern Labor Studies Association in the spring of 2015. I was the incoming president of the group—an organization of academics and activists that promotes the study, teaching, and preservation of the history of labor in the U.S. South—and we were discussing future activities of the organization and what we could be doing better to get the excellent scholarship and work done by our members out to a broader public. A podcast was one of the things we decided to try, and it’s succeeded far beyond what I think any of us expected.

Q: What’s the ‘behind the scenes’ of an episode?

The behind the scenes of Working History is pretty unremarkable, really! We have a staff of two—I host and produce, and Jim Rick, a PhD candidate at the College of William and Mary, is the podcast’s production assistant. Between he and I we identify new books that have been published in the field of southern labor history, arrange interviews with the authors, read the books and write up broad interview questions we want to discuss with guests. We record, usually remotely, and after some light editing, voila—we have an episode.

What’s great about producing a podcast like Working History is that authors get to talk in detail about their work in a conversational format. They’ve invested incredible amounts of time and resources into their books and want to make them available to as wide an audience as possible, which is the platform Working History provides. So, in a lot of ways my job as host is pretty easy.

Q: Who did you think your audience would be, and was this prediction accurate?

When we started the podcast we thought the audience would be professional historians and graduate students—people in the academy who maybe would want to read or assign to classes all of the books we feature on the podcast, but frankly don’t have the time to. This is certainly a core group of our listeners, and I was pleasantly surprised when colleagues began telling me that they’ve assigned episodes of the podcast in their classes, or that they decided to assign a book for a class based on an author interview they heard on Working History.

What I had hoped, as well, is that we’d reach a more general audience, and this has happened, too. We have listeners all around the world. These are folks who might not necessarily want to pour through a 400-page scholarly monograph, but are interested in the histories explored by these authors, and, I think importantly, how these histories can inform our understanding of current events.

Q: Why do you think history podcasts are so popular?

I always find it funny that people often say that the class they hated the most in school was history, yet there’s this huge popular appetite for history. This appetite only seems to be growing, especially as more and more historical records are online and accessible outside of archives and research libraries, and online genealogy databases and ancestry-related DNA tests are personalizing and making accessible individual and familial histories in new ways.

And on a broader level, I think there are lots and lots of people want to better understand how we’ve gotten to where we are today, whether in the context of current political and economic debates or social and cultural norms. At the same time, let’s be honest, history makes for some of the best storytelling around, and there are many fascinating events, and movements, and people of the past whose true stories are better than any fiction. History podcasts are tapping into all of this.

Q: Do you think history podcasts can successfully bridge the gap between popular and scholarly audiences—and, if yes, what do you think is so accessible about the format?

 If Working History is indicative of bridging the scholarly-popular divide, then absolutely, podcasts can be successful in this way. As I noted above, history podcasts have the ability to make accessible really specialized research, or to contextualize what might be considered a blip on the historical radar, for listeners who might not have hours and hours to spend reading an academic book or deeply researching a subject, but still have a keen interest in the subject matter at hand.

Q: What role do you think podcasts play in scholarly communities?

I see podcasts as one part of a bigger trend within scholarly communities to find new, creative, and innovative ways to produce and disseminate academic work in the digital age we now live in. They are the outward, public face of scholarly work that can hook a broader audience of listeners, inform debate, and push them toward a deeper understanding of the work being done within the academy. And I think podcasts are increasingly viewed as complements to more formal written and published work produced by those in scholarly communities for scholarly communities.

The volume of scholarship produced in any given field often outpaces individuals’ abilities to digest all of it, and podcasts can help give scholars a taste of some of that work that they might otherwise need to pass by. And because of their accessibility, podcasts can be catalysts for connecting the work of scholars across fields and disciplines, and for new interdisciplinary discussions and debates.

Make sure to listen and subscribe to Working History on iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts!